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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Labor and Breweries

Separate from their personal style of managing workers, the Rogue case does raise certain interesting questions, none of which will be resolved here. They may, if we're lucky, at least be fully enumerated. To begin with, breweries of any size start to look a whole lot like factories. Brew 50,000 barrels of beer, and you're working on an industrial scale. For decades, working at a brewing plant meant a union salary, job security, and probably all the work you wanted until retirement. We don't have a overwhelming number of manufacturing jobs left in America (owing mainly to computers and machines--we actually continue to produce more stuff year by year), so breweries have long been great places to work.

Small breweries, on the other hand, have a different situation altogether. Margins are razor thin, and the same guy who makes the recipes may be the guy who hauls grain and hoses down the brewery. Even decent-sized small breweries that employ a few people don't have the kind of income to offer manufacturing-type union jobs with good pay and benefits. Somewhere between Oakshire and Deschutes, there's a line where scale begins to earn breweries enough that they could conceivably begin paying line workers fairly decent wages. Many people have asked me over the years (mainly BlueOregonian type people) which breweries treat their workers the best. I haven't known--nor have I even known how to assess the question. I keep my ears open, but it's usually apples-and-oranges breweries.

I'm one of those fairly unreasonable pro-labor guys who seem to have mostly vanished in America (to us, the word "socialist" means "good and true"). There's no evidence that free markets are much endangered by fairly-paid workers. Still, not every business in the world can afford to pay the same thing. As with so much, there's lots of gray area.


  1. In my personal Union job, Unions seem to protect the underachievers to create a sluggish, sloppy and atrophied workforce. While protected by the money grubbing Unions who usually do a minimal amount for workers but happily line their pockets with workers union dues, the workers become complacent under the umbrella of pseudo-protection and produce at lower level of quality work. Comfort doesn't influence creativity but does create stagnation. In a non-union shop the dead wood either learns to produce quality work or are threatened with dismissal. What would you rather have as a workforce if you were the boss? You pay for quality workers and expect nothing less. While this may sound like pro-Rogue rhetoric, no one wants to work for a tyrant! Although, for a decent pay almost anybody or corporate bulldog can be tolerated.

  2. I think what complicates this discussion even more is that entrepreneurs need to be compensated for the risk they took to start the business. Long hours, no income, family loans, second mortgage, putting off marriage, etc. That only occurs when their business is profitable. So it can look like the owner is taking a disproportionate amount of business revenue, but in reality they're reaping the rewards of their investment. Employees may think they're getting the short end of the stick and demand more money. The question I guess is, when have owners been properly compensated?

  3. Brewer's compensation is a tricky subject and you're correct that blanket statements are difficult to make. The larger (and often more corporate entities) tend to pay their brewers (especially salaried brewers) significantly better than the industry average with better benefits. Of course, they are also likely to be stingiest with the intangibles that may seem like an inalienable right of making beer (e.g. free pints or short-fills post shift). The larger / more established breweries may or may not ask for more hours in return for better pay and benefits and they may or may not offer a more structured / stable work environment. As you stated, it is often comparing apples and oranges even among similar sized breweries.

    However, it is true that the wages in Portland are low by national standards because of the many rookie and seasoned brewers desiring to brew in Beervana despite a lack of a living wage. Wages over $13.00 / hr are depressingly rare. I also believe that unions are not the answer to wage issues but don't feel like getting into a pissing match over a moral argument at the moment.

  4. That post is going to be Libertarian bait, Jeff. You've already gotten one objectively disprovable argument ("Unions make you lazy!") and then one specious one ("Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?"). Both are indicative of the level of propaganda being inculcated into Americans essentially from birth. Why should we put ourselves into the "boss's shoes"? Why should the vast 80% of americans who own 15% of the wealth give a flying shit about the risks an entrepreneur takes? That entrepreneur has probably already won the uterine lottery.

    Look at Sam Calagione, for example. The white son of wealthy oral surgeons who own vineyards, Calagione has cited Ayn Rand as an inspiration. He's often billed as a "risk taking entrepreneur." What risks, exactly? Every poor person who buys a lottery ticket with any regularity is dumping more of their money proportionally into risk that definitely won't pay back. Why should we give a shit about the reward of rich white males who have rigged the game already and can buffer the losses on the chance they fail?

  5. Good lord, Daniel, you're my new hero. Well said, sir.

  6. "Both are indicative of the level of propaganda being inculcated into Americans essentially from birth."

    Damn, can I borrow your tinfoil hat catalogue? I'd really like to start thinking for myself ASAP!

  7. Joe, I don't know why I couldn't see it before--I must have been blinded by those filthy academics who believe in things like "transmission of culture" and "ideology"--but you are so right! Human beings shape their ideas in the crucible of Pure Thought and Rationality, and inexorably reach the Right and True conclusion: that free market capitalism is the best of all possible worlds, the greatest and most egalitarian system of economics ever devised by mankind (or ever will be). Entrepreneurs are Howard Roarkian figures; chiseled jaws and strong, masculine upper bodies, heroically holding up the world while the parasite socialists and feminists perpetually snap at their heels. Of course we should think of how these brave White Males support the entire world as we know it. Can't we just think of the pain they must go through in order to bring this great world to us? Can't we understand how hurtful it is to them when us mere workers demand petty things like "fair working conditions" and a "living wage." What would we do without their god-like benevolence?

  8. But Daniel, however did you emerge from the cave and see that what I think is reality are merely shadows cast upon the wall?

    Did you hit the uterine lottery?

    Seriously though, I have no problem with you believing what you do. I disagree, but I certainly don't think your thoughts are somehow the uncritical acceptance of Mao or Marx or some other ridiculous socialist Randesque straw man stereo type. My default assumption is that people are capable of self-critical thought, perhaps I've given them to much credit, maybe you don't give them enough.

  9. Stepping aside from the philosophical debate, I made a trip to my local big brewery yesterday to write up on their new expansion. Rogue is not Lagunitas, but both seem to share a common image where they promote a rebel attitude and both have a thing for dogs.

    After doing my work (surprising, as my union-bred genes were begging me not to) I sat down for a beer with a couple of the brewery's factory-like workers. The topic of the article came up and I read them some of the comoplaints made about the Rogue Brewery. Their reaction was most shaken heads and "That sucks."

    To follow up though, I asked how they liked working for Lagunitas. You have to realize, this conversation came during a post work beer, gripes about the work were being made for the past half hour. But that's where the gripes end, were with "the work."

    The work is always the work and it's never pretty or enjoyable. If it were, they wouldn't have to pay you to do it. I think our conversation was summed up with one statement, "I'm drinking a free beer after work, we get a case a week and free lunch on Fridays. I can't complain."

    Are they paid prevailing wage? I don't know. I also don't know if they're paid minimum wage. What I do know is I talked to a couple hard workers who defended their employer when presented with another who may not be so nice.

    I think the news about Rogue is shocking but more so to members of the beer industry. We're accustomed to everyone being friendly, doors always open, friendships and handshakes actually meaning something. Basically, it's not business as usual. This news about Rogue shatters our image of the brewing industry. As more money comes in, there are more reports of brewers suing brewers, more stories of questionable business practices, more business as usual and I think it makes some of us just a little sad.

  10. Also, I should offer my political stance. I was raised in a union household, son of a union carpenter. Unions should be about an honest days work for an honest days pay. In public I'll call myself a democrat but amongst friends they know I'm a socialist (not communist) at heart. I dream of a world where unions aren't needed to protect the rights of the worker, but until that day comes, I see them as an imperfect tool in the fight for fair labor practices.

  11. Even though I'm a lifelong Texan (one of the most famed at-will states), I've been a fan of unions because of their protection of workers. But having recently watched "Waiting for Superman," my view of unions has been shocked. I don't so much consider myself as a socialist, but as a pragmatist that has society and human rights as my top priorities. So I have started to view unions as something that protect workers, even those that are terribly underperforming at the expense of rewarding the creative and the hardworking.

  12. This is my first chance to get to comments, so....

    The real point of the post is that labor issues can't be addressed without considering the size of a brewery--a fact I'll assume everyone grants since there's no debate.

    As to labor issues, this isn't a great forum for discussing them. Still, a few global points are worth making. When management has the ability to dictate working conditions and has the ability to fire people, they have the easy ability to abuse workers. One way workers can address this is by acting collectively. This is the essence of labor rights.

    A lot gets said about the evils or wonder of unions on the one hand or management on the other, and because we all have jobs, we all have anecdotes to support whatever position we hold. Lazy worker--unions are bad! Bullying boss--management is evil! But they're human organizations and as a consequence, plagued by all the problems, imperfections, and abuses every other human organization is.

    No one for a minute can deny that there's a compromise built into the heart of unions such that the desire to band together and protect each other leads to protecting lazy workers. But no one can deny that there are PLENTY of examples of non-union private businesses that are hopelessly dysfunctional and inefficient. Unions have their drawbacks, but find me a group that doesn't. Similarly, many jobs have great bosses in the absence of unions, or tyrants who abuse subordinates. Life is like that.

    The question is, how do we negotiate the relationship between workers and management so that businesses flourish and workers are treated fairly in the aggregate. There's very little evidence that unionization afflicts the markets of the countries where its robust and healthy.

  13. "The real point of the post is that labor issues can't be addressed without considering the size of a brewery..."

    I am not sure that statement is true. I have seen and heard of both large and small breweries either being generous and fair or stingy and unfair.

    If you were to talk to some brewers in Portland they know who is and isn't fair around town or even in Oregon and beyond.

    If you invest in your employees your beer will often show it, as will the attitude of your employees.